2007 is a year with major significance for dolphin enthusiasts as it has been officially declared the Year of the Dolphin! You might have heard about this in the news. But what on earth is the Year of the Dolphin all about, and who has the authority to declare such things? Well, if you have been reading the placemats at your local Chinese restaurant, you will probably already know that 2006 is, or was, the year of the dog, not the dolphin. Chinese New Year falls on February 29th, at which time it will become 2007: the year of the boar. In fact, the dolphin is not even one of the animals featured in the Chinese zodiac, so it wasn’t the Chinese who hit upon the idea of 2007 being the Year of the Dolphin. It was the United Nations that has made this declaration.
The United Nations (or UN) is an international organization founded after the end of the Second World War that endeavors to facilitate cooperation in international law, security, economical development and social equality. The United Nations Environment Programme is the UN’s advocate for environmental protection, and one of the co-sponsors of the initiative to designate 2007 the year of the Dolphin. Together with the Convention on Migratory Species, the UN hope that its member nations (all 192 of them) and the citizens of the world will join together to protect threatened and endangered dolphin species. Dolphins can often be found in international waters, or traveling between the coastal waters of any number of countries, which is why a global international initiative is vital.
The UN has history of declaring the year of the something-or-other; intended to draw attention to an important issue that deserves global attention. For example, the UN general assembly declared 2006 the International Year of Deserts and Desertification, 2005 the International Year of Sports and Physical Education, and 2004 the International Year of Rice. Sometimes however the UN will declare multiple subjects for the same year: 2008 for example will be the International Year of the Potato, the International year of Planet Earth, and the International Year of Sanitation.
For those of you wishing to celebrate the pleasures of the potato, it looks like you will have to wait another 12 months. In the meantime, why not take this opportunity to make the International Year of the Dolphin a year to remember! But hold the boat – are dolphins even threatened? Is it necessary to even declare a Year of the Dolphin? Do they really need extra protection?
While it may be true that some species of dolphins are indeed plentiful, there are other species of dolphin that constitute some of the most endangered animal species on the planet. And even those species whose numbers are currently strong are increasingly subject to threats that may one day lead to their extinction. All dolphin species are vulnerable to the following manmade threats:
Fisheries and bycatch: with fishing increasing in both intensity and range around the globe, dolphins are increasingly subject to accidental bycatch in nets. Gillnets in particular constitute a major threat – these small nylon nets are anchored or left to drift along the coast, accidentally trapping dolphins that get in the way. The World Wildlife Foundation estimates that over 1000 dolphins a day die in fishing gear.
Chemical pollution: consisting of things like sewage, industrial discharges and oil spills, chemical pollution can destroy habitats and directly poison dolphins.
Ship strikes and boat traffic: with the ever increasing amount of boat traffic on our oceans, and more and more whale and dolphin based tourism, dolphins are increasingly becoming victim to accidental strikes by boats.
Noise, disturbance and harassment: The increased number of boats and tourism can also impact dolphins in less obvious, but equally as deadly ways. Human generated noise can disrupt dolphins’ abilities to communicate with each other, and to find prey species. Intentional or unintentional disturbance and harassment by well meaning (and not so well meaning) humans can alter dolphins’ natural behavior in such drastic ways that entire populations may be destroyed. For example, a small population of bottlenose dolphins in Doubtful Sound New Zealand is predicted to go extinct by 2050 – a decline that is attributed solely to disturbances by humans.
Habitat loss: Like terrestrial species, this is perhaps one of the most profound threats. River dolphins are especially vulnerable to habitat destruction – the Baiji or Yangtze River Dolphin is the first (and hopefully the last) large mammal species to have actually gone extinct as a direct result of habitat loss. To learn more about this, listen to the Dolphin Pod Episode from December 22 2006 titled Baiji Extict!
Deliberate hunting: there are still many places on earth where dolphins are deliberately hunted. Some large scale hunting and culling operations, like the infamous Japanese drive hunts, can kill as many as 20,000 individual dolphins per year, including some threatened and endangered species.
Even healthy populations will eventually be threatened with extinction if we do nothing to reduce the prevalence of these deadly pressures. Some species are, however, threatened with imminent extinction if we do not act immediately. These include the following dolphin species:
Maui’s Dolphin – listed as critically endangered, this dolphin species lives off the North Island in New Zealand. There are only around 100 individuals left in the wild.
Hector’s Dolphin, also in New Zealand, is endangered – only 2000 of these dolphins are left today.
Vaquita – a critically endangered porpoise species living in the Gulf of Mexico. Possibly only around 100 individuals left.
Irrawaddy Dolphin – consisting of many critically endangered populations living in and near the rivers in Asia.
The Ganges and Indus river dolphin – an endangered species living in the Indus and Ganges rivers in India – likely only a few thousand left.
The Yangtze finless porpoise – critically endangered – only 400 or less of these animals currently live in the Yangtze river
These are only a handful of the many species that are threatened or endangered. There are also many local populations of species like the harbor porpoise or bottlenose dolphin that, although having strong numbers around the globe, are threatened with extinction. The Baltic harbor porpoise, for example, living in the Baltic Sea has had its numbers reduced to just 1% of what it once was – now only less 100 are alive today.
With the recent extinction of the Baiji – a river dolphin that, like the Yangtze Finless Porpoise, used to live in the very crowded and polluted waters of the Yangtze river in China – we do not have to look very hard to find examples of the reality of extinction. These are not vague, or far-off possibilities, but immediate concerns, which is what the Year of the Dolphin could not have come at a better time.
Are you interested in helping dolphins? There are countless ways for individuals to lend a hand, including supporting those organizations that are allied with the Year of the Dolphin campaign. The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, one of the cosponsors of the Year of the Dolphin, offers many opportunities to help campaign to conserve whale and dolphin species, including whale adoption packages, and eco-friendly whale and dolphin watching travel deals. The Dolphin Communication Project also offers eco-tours and dolphin adoption packages that will help support our research. For more information on how you can help celebrate the Year of the Dolphin, visit the Year of the Dolphin website at www.yod2007.org